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Physical Therapy & Breast Cancer: Reconnecting with Your Body

Most of us don’t realize how attached we are to our breasts and how traumatic it can be when they become redefined, reshaped, or entirely lost to cancer. To lose breast tissue or go through chemotherapy and radiation is an indescribably intimate and emotional experience. It’s well documented that breast cancer can impact the way women feel about their bodies, their ability to feel pleasure, and even their sense of self.

If you’re a survivor, this isn’t news to you. If you’ve recently found out that you have breast cancer, it can be hard to know what to expect. Wherever you are on your journey, this is likely the first time you’ve heard that physical therapy can help.

“Some of the most rewarding work I’ve done as a physical therapist has been to support breast cancer survivors as they heal and reconnect with their bodies,” says Origin physical therapist Daria Tavana, DPT. “I wish more women knew what physical therapy can do, not just when it comes to preparing for and regaining strength after surgery, but also in terms of feeling validated and good in their skin."

Caring for Your Body Before & After Treatment

While physical therapy is typically prescribed after breast cancer surgery, there are benefits to checking in with a PT beforehand, if you have the time. “Seeing a physical therapist ahead of surgery can ensure that you’re starting out from the best possible place,” says Dr. Tavana. “A PT can help you better understand what correct posture is and which stretches can be beneficial for you to prepare your body for treatment."

After surgery, it’s normal to feel vulnerable, raw, and uncertain of what your body is capable of. “There’s a tendency to hunch the shoulders forward in a protective posture that not only creates imbalance that can lead to chronic pain, it can make you feel smaller and less confident,” says Dr. Tavana. Depending on the type and extent of your surgery, muscles and tissue in your shoulders, back, and abdomen may also be affected. This can create tightness and tension that makes simple movements like putting on a shirt, carrying something close to your body, or even just walking feel foreign to you.

Other treatments like radiation, chemotherapy, or hormonal therapy may have side effects that include compromised bone health, altered sensation, and lymphedema — a buildup of lymph caused by removed or damaged lymph nodes. Less expected side effects include urinary leakage, pelvic organ prolapse, and painful sex. A physical therapist who specializes in the pelvic floor can help with all of these issues.

These aren’t things that you need to just accept or deal with on your own. “Breast cancer survivors are fighters,” says Dr. Tavana. “But despite how strong and resilient you are, you deserve to have support and expert guidance.”

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A Mind-Body Approach to Recovery

When most people think of physical therapy, they picture a PT leading someone through an exercise program. While exercise is a core component of physical therapy, when it comes to breast cancer and the issues that can arise from treatment, there’s much more involved — especially at clinics like Origin, where PTs take a holistic, mind-body approach.

An integral goal of physical therapy at Origin is to help you become more aware of and present in your body. “Understanding your body isn’t just about knowing your anatomy or learning how tissue heals,” says Dr. Tavana. “It’s also understanding how things like stress, trauma, and anxiety can impact posture, movement, and pain.”

Beyond exercises to keep you strong, physical therapy may include stretches, breathing techniques, manual therapies, and pelvic floor muscle re-education to help you connect with your body throughout recovery, so you can feel like yourself again.

Physical Therapy and a Healing Touch

Being seen and touched by a trusted health care provider is a too-often overlooked benefit of physical therapy. “Some patients don’t feel comfortable touching their scar tissue and are very reluctant to have anyone see their chest after a breast has been altered or removed,” says Dr. Tavana. “Therapeutic scar massage not only helps tissue heal properly, it helps reintroduce touch in a positive and healing way.” If you’re doing virtual physical therapy, you can still benefit from a PT teaching you self-massage techniques.

From visit to visit, a physical therapist will get to know you, as a unique individual, and help build a path to accomplish all of your movement goals, so that you can get back to the activities that make you feel whole. This personalized support can make all the difference when you’re dealing with cancer. There’s so much you can do to feel better in your body, and a physical therapist can help, every step of the way.

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